Ex-Game Rater Dishes the Dirt… ESRB Boss Fires Back

An ex-employee has pulled the curtain back a bit on the enigma that is the Entertainment Software Rating Board.

In a guest shot for the April issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly, Jerry Bonner, who spent six months with the ESRB as one of the organization’s first crop of full-time content raters, offers his perspective on the video game rating process and what he feels are the problems therein. EGM also gave ESRB president Patricia Vance (left) a chance to respond. She did, taking issue with most of Bonner’s points.

Bonner, who rated more than 700 games in his short ESRB stint, writes that the system needs to be fixed in order to keep government censors from stepping in. He offers a six-point solution which includes:

1.) Dropping the “Adults Only” rating and and adding a T-16 to go along with the current Teen rating, which is intended for those 13 and older.

2. Actually playing the games. This has already become a political issue given Sen. Sam Brownback’s Truth in Video Game Ratings Act, now pending before the U.S. Senate. Bonner writes:

The ESRB’s current pool of fulltime raters… does not actually play the games that they rate. They just watch submitted videotapes or DVDs of someone else playing the game…

I would strongly suggest having the raters play the games to completion and carefully log their findings throughout the playtest. I’ve already heard the ESRB’s argument on this one: “That’ll take way too long and it will compromise our turnaround time.” My solution to that is simple: Hire more people.

3. Forget “parity” – If Bonner is correct, the ESRB bases sequel ratings on preceding games in the franchise, terming this “parity.” Bonner writes:

Parity to the ESRB is like dots to Pac-Man or blood to Dracula – a lifesustaining fuel. The logic goes like this: If game X gets a Teen rating, then it stands to reason that the sequel will get the same and so on and so forth into infinity. In my time as a rater this concept just handcuffed us more than helped us… Forget the whole concept of parity, or minimize the dependence on it, and judge each individual game solely on its content and nothing else.

4. Be more open – In GP’s experience, Bonner is correct that the ESRB is pretty secretive about its operations:

I used to tell a joke while working at the ESRB that their acronym should be changed to CIA… Realistically, there is nothing to hide at the ESRB. Everything was above board as far as I could tell… But by acting in a secretive, mysterious way, the ESRB creates an appearance of impropriety. 

In addition, Bonner wants raters to have more say in final rating determinations as opposed to what appears to be somewhat of a committee approach. He also sees the development of competitive rating systems as a way to motivate the ESRB to improve.

Not surprisingly, ESRB president Patricia Vance took issue with Bonner’s views, pulling no punches in a counterpoint which runs with Bonner’s article in EGM:

Mr. Bonner’s article contains numerous misleading statements, factual inaccuracies, and misrepresentations… The author also fails to mention the unique and limited nature of his six-month tenure at the ESRB…

He implies that we arbitrarily change ratings after the raters have done their jobs. This is not the case… And, contrary to Mr. Bonner’s contention, the fact that a title being rated is part of a series has no bearing on the decision…

The author unfortunately also confuses our efforts to ensure the integrity and trustworthiness of the ratings system with unnecessary levels of secrecy. It is regrettable that the author does not appreciate the importance of protecting the confidentiality of the raters to avoid even the possibility of undue influence from external sources.

At the end of the day, ESRB stands behind each rating it assigns, and the process by which it assigns those ratings.

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